45 & Thrive: Workplace wellness and why your employer should support it

Left photo by Damir Kopezhan, right photo by William Choquette.

Most of us spend one-third of our adult lives, and close to half of our waking hours, at work. Our workplaces can range considerably, from almost stagnant, sedentary desk work, to vigorous intense labour, and everything in between. Most of us can’t guarantee that our ‘work’ activities are physically demanding enough to support or mimic what is required to maintain muscle mass, optimize functional strength, and be structured to result in an excellent metabolic boost. Frankly, let’s be honest: Many work environments and the daily tasks required there are at least neutral to, or might even be counterproductive to, our health and wellness. So, what can we do about this?

Well, as they say, the first part of solving a problem is recognizing that one exists. Take an objective look at your workplace and the tasks associated with your job.  Are you getting the kind of physical activity required to support fitness and health directly from your job? If so – Great! You are very fortunate. If not, then consider whether your tasks or daily schedule can be adjusted to accommodate some training or other wellness activities on a regular basis throughout your work week. If this proves difficult, then take a close look at your non-work time. Is you have a 45 – 60 minute window, two to three times per week, that you could devote to your physical and overall well-being? If so, then please consider taking the steps to include some sort of meaningful, fundamental training activities which will support your health and wellness.

However, there is, in fact, another option. Many of the most innovative and successful companies in the world like Accenture, Google, Microsoft and Zappos, and even smaller, but notable Canadian success stories such as CGI, Devon Energy, and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society have been lauded for beginning to integrate employee wellness programs into the work day. What do I mean by ‘employee wellness programs’? There are quite a range of these, but many include some or all of the following:

  • on-site fitness centres
  • gym memberships or vouchers to purchase off-site fitness/wellness services
  • personal training for employees
  • healthy food catering
  • smoking cessation programs
  • employee wellness challenges, and;
  • EAP’s (employee assistance programs)

Employee wellness programs often include several of these and might also adapt and change as employees’ needs or interests change. These are but a few of the options regularly offered at companies noted as being leaders in employee engagement, employee retention, and recognized as ‘Top Employers’.

Now, this might and probably does sound very attractive for employees, but what are the benefits to businesses for providing some or all of these services? There are several. A notable benefit right off the top is financial. Several studies have indicated that businesses save about $3 in health care expenses for every $1 spent on wellness programs (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4929144/). That can have a significant impact on a business’ bottom line. Beyond the direct economic advantages of workplace wellness programs, there are benefits for employers and businesses in improved productivity at work, fewer days lost to illness, lower absenteeism, and improved employee engagement, retention, morale and recruitment. These are significant and quantifiable benefits for both employers and their employees. In a competitive hiring market, prospective new employees are often very aware of, and interested in, the corporate culture of a prospective new employer. The benefits resulting from workplace wellness programs can make or break a firm’s advantage in hiring when recruits take a close look at the workplace environment.

So, what are some of the challenges to launching workplace wellness programs? The most often cited barrier to either establishing or maintaining employee wellness programs is the lack of buy-in by senior management. While not every manager or corporate leader needs to be a runner or a gym rat, by leading by example, management can motivate employees by modelling a commitment to workplace and employee wellness. Sincere leadership and authentic interest in employee well-being by senior staff are key ingredients in these programs’ success. In addition, staff interest needs to be evident and encouraged. Surveying employees’ wellness interests and needs, using outside consultants to help shape and direct a meaningful menu of wellness activities or options, and establishing a wellness working group made of employees across the business can be great steps towards creating a foundation for success. Employee incentives for participation in such programs (ranging from T-shirts, water bottles and gift certificates, to training gear, massage certificates, and sports gear) can go a long way towards supporting wellness programs and keeping enthusiasm high. Even low cost/no cost incentives such as flexible daily work schedules and/or paid time off to exercise can have an excellent ROI and wider employee buy-in.

 A lack of time during the work day may seem prohibitive to enacting some of the best practices associated with employee wellness programs, but that is where the introduction of ‘Wellness Vouchers’ or ‘Health Credits’ might prove useful. With these incentives, employers can offer to cover or subsidize off-site wellness practices like gym memberships, yoga classes, personal training, dietician services, or smoking cessation programs. These vouchers are then used by employees to partake in wellness activities in the community, but perhaps outside of the workday. This might give all concerned some needed flexibility. However, many organizations have found that making a concerted effort to work with employees’ workplace schedule so that they may include wellness activities as part of the workday can have increased benefits. Workplace culture improves, productivity improves, employee retention improves, and employees have even more to look forward to in their work day.

One of the major challenges small businesses have when considering employee wellness programs is scalability. They often feel (and very well may be) just too small and limited in their capacity to offer wellness resources, despite the identifiable benefits. One solution to this can be offering these incentives in a co-operative relationship with other small, like-minded businesses who also feel restricted from doing so independently. Two, three or more small businesses can group together as a sort of ‘wellness co-op’ and hire consultants to survey their respective staffs, review current demands and resources, and recommend a plan or set of wellness offerings to meet the requirements of the group as a whole. They can band together, share the costs, and reap the benefits across the included businesses. As a larger buying group, they can often get services and products such as gym memberships, personal training services, and healthy on-site food choices at a discount. Their collective buying power helps employees from each firm benefit, which couldn’t occur otherwise.

In fact, some employers can turn their own successful wellness programs (either alone or in cooperation with other like-minded businesses) into a revenue-generating stream by offering these services to interested outside groups/businesses that may be too small to offer their own services at a reasonable scale to their own employees. This can be a win all round.

Regardless of whether you currently have a workplace wellness program or not, taking the time to consider the best way to make regular fitness, healthy eating and mindful practices a priority in your busy life is well worth the effort. When given the opportunity to provide feedback at work about steps which could be taken to improve employee engagement, retention and productivity, speak up about the benefits of partnering with your employer to examine some best practices in this area. Perhaps before too long, you will have access to these resources within the context of your workday and there will be real, tangible benefits for all concerned. And, you will have taken one more positive step towards robust longevity.

Until next time,

Michael Patterson, M.Ed.
Lift long and Prosper

Michael Patterson M.Ed, has spent 30+ years as a fitness and health professional. He holds degrees in Physical and Health Education, Psychology, and Education. Find out more about Michael and follow him on his website at www.45andthrive.com, and on Instagram @45andthrive. Questions and comments can be sent to mpatterson@kos.net.

*Disclaimer: The information provided and discussed in this column is based on my personal experience, studies of physical and health education and my expertise as a lifelong fitness and health professional.  Any recommendations made about fitness, training, nutrition, supplements or lifestyle, or information provided through this column, should be discussed with your physician or other health-care professional.

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